Marching to the beat of someone else’s drum on the Future Leaders Scheme (FLS)
We don’t learn from experiences; we learn from reflecting on experiences
“Future Leaders Scheme is building a diverse, robust pipeline to senior roles. You’re part of the high potential, talented civil servants who can get there.”
The Future Leaders Scheme (FLS) is one of the UK Civil Service’s Accelerated Development Schemes, aimed at high-potential grade 6 and 7 civil servants. You can read my reflections on the scheme here:
Hello dear reader,
Here I am again, ready to pour my existential angst into another blog post. The Future Leaders Scheme evokes emotions in me that are difficult to convey. Navigating that and finding the words to describe what I am feeling but cannot name is hard.
When I started writing these blog posts, I wanted it to be a place where I could meander through my thoughts and ideas, bringing them together. I wanted to write about things that mattered and will continue to matter.
I don’t exactly recall how I began to write, only that it started off emotionally, the words pouring onto the page as I scribbled without aim or purpose. I just wanted to feel connected to something on the scheme. Writing has become central to both my thinking process and my mental health. It is a refuge for me as I feel constantly ill at ease with my surroundings.
So, here goes.
I am throwing all the “meaning in life” balls up in the air on the second module of the Future Leaders Scheme and it is taking a long time for them to land in any pattern that makes sense. The second module consisted of:
- day 1 — providing tools and techniques that can be used to help teams and people develop; and,
- day 2 — helping to understand change, the impacts upon yourself and those around you, and how to create an environment that is inclusive.
I am quickly learning to understand the rules of the world I’m inhabiting on the scheme, mastering the art of learned behaviour and conditioned responses. This has become a sort of personalised social ethnography experiment. In writing these blog posts I hope to break down some of the barriers for others, to avoid passing on the burden of understanding a world deliberately obscure.
I do know that the question that routinely comes up for me, ‘How did the scheme get like this?,’ still has plenty of mileage. Is there some ostensible purpose to all this? Because it has often felt like a combination of outdated thinking, conformist social pressures, and self-perpetuation for doing more of the same. The system is what the system does: if we’ve always done what we’ve done, then we’ll always get what we’ve got.
I am on a collision course with a model of development that is centrally embedded and deeply held across the UK Civil Service. Is it heresy to speak against it? Where are the places more energetic, promising, compassionate, and bold than anything we’ve seen before? And why is it not here?
The story I will tell, about what it’s like on the scheme, is mine and mine alone. Before we start, I will say a few things.
‘Be true to yourself’ continues to come up frequently. The scheme couldn’t have set up lessons on the “double bind” of disruptors or changemakers any better if they had tried.
The “double bind” refers to impossible standards for, in this case, disruptors or changemakers. We think leaders should be open, authentic, and true to themselves. They should have growth and take risks. They should be, in essence, human.
But if someone seeking a leadership role demonstrates too much honesty, vulnerability, and autonomy, then we react negatively. We regard them as ‘disruptive,’ ‘self-governing,’ and ‘bold.’ The dichotomy of “trust and autonomy” training whilst the organisations to which people belong are still structured around “control and compliance.” Autonomy is turned into a commandment: “Be autonomous (and obey)!”
This paradoxical injunction places a double bind on people, exacerbating emotionally distressing tensions, especially if constantly implied (as is generally the case on the scheme). Such a dilemma confronts people to the fact that a successful response to one request will result in a failed response to the other, and vice versa. There will be no way to be perceived right, no matter how one reacts, making it difficult to respond to and resist. You are continually judged against a yardstick you cannot see.
It is tricky to solve the underlying dilemma. You see, there are costs to non-conformity: civil servants assiduously police the boundaries of acceptable thought and behaviour. It’s exceedingly difficult to be non-conformist on your own in places where it’s not welcome, requiring strength of character of epic proportions. It’s harder still, amidst the crossfire hurricane of influence, to think and act for yourself. In essence, to be you.
Whilst there certainly are people there (and across the UK Civil Service) that think and act differently, there are few incentives and many penalties for rocking the boat. Because of this, and much more, many on the scheme appear to be cut from the same cognitive cloth — which makes being a challenging voice a lonely experience.
So, disruptors or changemakers must walk an impossible line between showing authenticity and staying acceptable to the system (by monitoring their behaviour) if they pursue a leadership position.
The “double bind” appears deeply ingrained in our psyches and cultures in the UK Civil Service. I don’t think we’ll stop perceiving disruptors or changemakers in this way anytime soon. But perhaps we can make progress if we expand our standards for leadership. After all, organisations with too much imitation are liable to decay and degenerate, because they stop creating, thinking, and innovating.
From safety into the storm
For me, the scheme was about learning — in a genuinely psychologically safe and therapeutic space — how to be my true, genuine, authentic self. How to be truly known to other people. How to truly be with other people. I wanted to make the experience different through the way in which it was done in relationship, in community, together as a group.
I craved that invisible weight to keep me grounded, an informal parallel system of support in which people share resources, time, and of themselves to help each other out. It is an opportunity to examine connections — how things are bundled together — to challenge convention and conviction.
I wanted gratitude and appreciation of beautiful moments, coupled with the bittersweet realisation that they are only temporary. I wanted to be hopeful, even if I wasn’t sure what to hope for. I wanted to reaffirm my identity before deconstructing it.
Instead, it has been a bumpy road to find my sense of self in an eerie, precarious, and unstable place. I have felt fragile, anxious, uncertain, and restless. I am not in the right relationship with myself here. I wonder, is this the place that will scar me, but also plant the seeds of who I am tomorrow?
As I travel this pathway, I am continually defining myself to others, even though I am not sure who I am here. If I don’t know who I am, what hope do others have of knowing me?
I have a sense the scheme is entirely unsuited to responding to the world we live in; it cannot rise to the challenge and smothers any action. Something in me has shifted. I am living what feels like the final stage of grief: things cannot get better here.
Navigating the road ahead together
My sense of urgency that we need to do something differently has increased. Systemic problems seem to present themselves with increasing urgency, converging in multiple, all-encompassing crises. We cannot avoid the consequences of this reality. We won’t meet the challenges of our tomorrows with the same approaches of today.
Surely the aim of this all is to invent, and reinvent, meaning and purpose? To enable people to think and say things they never had before. It’s hard work — much of the time it’s painful and, sometimes, it’s also joyful. We must focus on nurturing the relationships we have with one another and bridge building. But this work is especially challenging in a place that doesn’t support the task of meaning-making and offers few opportunities for cultivation of purpose with others.
The stories we tell ourselves about the scheme can easily hook us in, leaving us hung up on unexamined ideas. Existing models and frameworks are taught exactly as they are, with the expectation it will yield a different ‘future leadership.’ I’ve been wondering if there are models and frameworks for future ways of leading, or whether they are being developed right now:
- If the models are being developed right now, then they cannot be taught; or,
- Where the models exist, then perhaps it’s the combinations for the future that don’t.
So, perhaps the conversations should centre around how the models and frameworks are relevant to the content and the group? If this is the case, then the questions may be:
- How can we, as a group, embody today the future we’re hoping to create?
- How can we foster humans thriving together?
- What kind of a person do I need to become, to occupy the future I’m dreaming of?
We need something new but are all hoping someone else will develop something different. What is to be done now? What real or perceived barriers are preventing us doing it? It was strange to see how deeply uncomfortable breaking the rules made some people, how little agency they thought they had.
To build better futures, we need to learn to think, learn, and build in new ways. The opportunity for this lies in edgelands, in transitional and liminal spaces; it rarely lies in the known. Communities are a place to practice the future, at least for me. They are a way to model the future we hope to create right here, right now, in small, tangible ways.
The sense of connection
People are so extraordinary, particularly if you find space to listen to them. Conversations full of curiosity delight me. I struggle with conversations about the mundane aspects of life (mundane as defined by me of course). I am realising that I bring my own motivations, hopes, values, but also fears, anxieties, traumas, biases, and blind spots into the scheme. I have started to see and slowly accept the different contradictory parts of the complexity of being me and to be much more accepting of those contradictory parts in others.
I’ve been reflecting on how my shadow side shows up in different contexts, its impact on others, and the conditions that I’m creating in the UK Civil Service. Values I had held close to me now seemed to have a shadow side: generosity could be seen by others as a covert power move by me; honesty and integrity could be ill timed in their expression and received as stab wounds by others; and the desire to help others seemed to be a way for me to avoid shadow sides of myself. I am coming to have empathy with the less desirable parts of myself and my history while also having more empathy for others and theirs.
I can’t tell you how much more complex, grounded, relaxed, joyful, alive I am outside the scheme’s boundaries than inside it. This realisation comes with genuinely anxious realities: to be that person in the scheme, I have to risk things, I have to take chances. I have to open up to people. I would have to let myself be seen by other people, whether I am ready or not.
The real, true, vibrant, colourful, richly emotive version of myself is in there somewhere. It just needs slowly coaxing out. I’m writing this because I also don’t want anyone else to live their life on the scheme under the impression that the structured, paper-thin version of themselves that they have had to create to be present there is the real one. It’s not.
If not now, when?
These are only parts of my experience. To speak is still a bold act and I’m reminded just how important working in the open is.
I no longer have solid plans for the scheme other than continuing to allow my curiosity to guide me. I want to continue to challenge myself and others to figure out ways to be better stewards of the community — even when it’s hard, uncomfortable, or tedious. I’m reminded to be more provocative, less diplomatic (thank you Sam Villis!). I now know that being vulnerable can be a strength and being strong can leave me vulnerable.
I have been living in a different world for a while, but the bigger, bleaker one on the scheme keeps breaking back in. I feel both sad and, suddenly, homesick. It’s more than a longing — I’ve lost something. I’m sure I’ve got this all wrong and there’s a silver lining to my existential misgivings that has the rare potential to lift me up to the heights of beatific excellence. But, somehow, I doubt it.
You can read all my reflections on the scheme here:
Future Leaders Scheme
The systems’ ability to nurture change agents is as important as change agents’ ability to nurture systems.
I have developed a wiki to openly document my learning journey: